Congressman Frank Wolf and Ambassador Sam Brownback: Friends and Human Rights Champions for Four Decades

This year, 21Wilberforce awards Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback its 3rd annual Frank Wolf Award for International Religious Freedom. While in Congress, former Representative Frank Wolf was a tireless advocate for religious freedom. In like manner, this award honors those who champion freedom of conscience around the world.

Ambassador Brownback was raised in the small agricultural community of Parker, Kansas—a town whose population only recently surpassed 300 people. His family raised cattle, hogs, and row crops. He was active in student organizations like 4-H and Future Farmers of America, and it was his involvement with agriculture that eventually led him into public service. After working as a private attorney and teaching classes at Kansas State University, Brownback became Kansas’s Secretary of Agriculture in 1986—the beginning of a long and distinguished career in government.

In 1995, Brownback was elected to the House of Representatives, where his friendship with Frank Wolf began. They shared strong convictions about human rights and religious freedom at a time when Congress’s attention was often directed elsewhere.

“He was one of the bright lights,” recalls Wolf. “We’ve been friends since he first came to Congress.”

In 1996, Brownback was elected to the Senate where human rights and religious freedom continued to be a cornerstone of his work. At that time, religious freedom—despite being codified in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the First Amendment of the American Constitution—was treated as a peripheral human right by most members of Congress. Many members believed the world would grow more secularized as it advanced into the 21st century and, therefore, international religious freedom would grow increasingly irrelevant.

Leaders like Sen. Brownback and Rep. Wolf disagreed. They recognized the global trend toward increased, not diminished, religious practice, as well as religious persecution around the world. In light of this shift, it seemed irresponsible to overlook religious freedom violations while legislating United States foreign policy.

Both Wolf and Brownback were key voices in crafting the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA), the landmark legislation that incorporated international religious freedom within U.S. foreign policy. Among other provisions, this Act created the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) as well as the very role that Brownback holds today: the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom within the Department of State.

During Brownback’s 15 years in the Senate, he sponsored or co-sponsored many bipartisan human rights bills, including the North Korea Human Rights Act of 2004 and the Iran Sanctions Act of 2010. In 2004, he and Rep. Wolf led the first congressional delegation to Western Sudan. After witnessing the horrific violence in Darfur, Brownback championed the effort to designate the Sudan conflict a genocide. From 2005-2007, he co-chaired the Helsinki Commission, which promotes human rights and cooperation between 57 countries in Europe, Eurasia, and North America.

Brownback ran for president in 2008, but withdrew from the race before the primaries. In an interview on the campaign trail he observed, “What a great place, that a guy can grow up on a farm in Eastern Kansas and run for President of the United States. I love a country like that.”

In 2011, Brownback left the Senate and was elected Governor of Kansas. He remained in office until 2018, when he accepted President Trump’s nomination as the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom.

As the Ambassador-at-Large, Brownback is the highest ranking United States diplomat for International Religious Freedom. His office monitors freedom of conscience around the globe, recommending and implementing policies to address offenders in specific regions or countries.

Alongside Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Ambassador Brownback led two historic Ministerials to Advance Religious Freedom, where over 1,000 officials from 100+ countries gathered to discuss challenges facing religious communities around the world. He has also worked with the International Religious Freedom Roundtable, a weekly meeting of NGOs addressing issues of religious freedom. This partnership has set a goal to launch roundtables in 100 countries around the world.

“One person’s bondage is another person’s burden to break,” said Brownback. “We’re all people with beautiful and undeniable human dignity. Our lives are sacred. Our right to choose the road our conscience takes is inalienable.”

Ambassador Brownback’s work springs from strong personal convictions. His belief in human dignity runs deep. His sense of responsibility for the alleviation of others’ suffering motivates his actions.

“He’s very good,” said Wolf of his one-time colleague. “He’s very honest, ethical, decent, and hardworking. Sam has a good family and is a man of great faith. He’s just a really good person.”

Indeed, Ambassador Brownback’s Christian faith motivates him to advocate for all people’s right to choose what they believe. When accepting his nomination as ambassador he quoted Mother Teresa, saying, “I love all religions, but I am in love with my own religion.”

In an era when freedom of religion, belief and conscience is often treated as a fringe human rights concern, Brownback believes it is a powerful force for humanization, tolerance, and reconciliation. It is for this undimmed vision and decades of tireless work that Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback receives the 2020 Frank Wolf International Religious Freedom Award.

Emma Hodges is a Fall Associate with 21Wilberforce